Saturday, February 18, 2012

Infantile Paralysis

No, this article is not about the affliction that millions of children suffered before the Salk polio vaccine was invented. Instead, we refer to the paralysis of a major political party in the U.S. and the infantile reaction of a prospective Presidential candidate. Lacking a philosophy of governance himself, Rick Santorum has demonstrated the truth in (then candidate) Obama's 2008 prophetic analysis that a frustrated electorate in small-town Pennsylvania and the midwest
"...get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations,..."
 Santorum's ROMBO video and his dogmatic refusal to respect women's rights of free choice in their own behavior and health care, have Republicans shooting at each other, rather than articulating ideas to ensure economic opportunity and justice for all Americans.

How can we hope to explain that the person who "approved this message" was ever elected to the U. S. House of Representatives, and to the U. S. Senate? Does losing his re-election campaign in 2006 really signal that Pennsylvania voters have finally turned the page on mindless demagoguery?  How can we justify his costume in the file of clowns parading in the circus of Republican primary exhibitionism that we have witnessed over the past few months? Well beyond P. T. Barnum's wildest dreams!

Santorum's tantrum is evidence enough of the insidious malevolence cultivated in our society by the relentless propaganda of the National Rifle Association cloaked in the guise of defense of constitutional rights. How much longer will Americans tolerate this ghastly paranoia before recognizing its unmistakeable consequences in events like the Gabby Gifford shooting and the Columbine school disaster?  How can we accept as "normal" that 45 school shootings occurred in the U. S. from 1996 to 2010?   If these are the isolated responses of the deranged or mentally deficient, how do we interpret the actions of a parent who shoots his daughter's laptop to teach her a lesson about parental respect? Does anyone see the irony in this? Not the American news media who set about polling the public to make sense of this inanity, rather than exercising responsible journalism in condemning irresponsible behavior.

The hatred, bigotry, vitriol, and disrespect shown toward other candidates and toward the religious, political, and personal beliefs of other Americans have been the hallmarks of the current campaign season. Every single prospective candidate currently left standing in the Republican line-up for the Presidential nomination has disqualified himself from further consideration. Answer for yourself the question that Obama raised in the 2008 quotation above. Which of today's prospective candidates was he describing?

It has been said before, but some things are worth repeating:  "Be careful how you vote; you may just get what you have voted for."

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Follow Your Dreams

It is not the Apple II, Macintosh, iPod, iMac, iPhone or iPad that define Steve Jobs' contribution to our lives. These are simply the by-products of Jobs' quest for beauty. In partnership with Steve Wozniak, tinkering with electronics and rudimentary software, Jobs and "the Woz" were the essence of "flower power" blossoming at the dawn of the personal computer age in the 1970s.  
In his 2005 commencement address to Stanford graduates, Steve Jobs urged the graduates to follow their dreams, unfettered by the constraints of other peoples' thinking. We will not reiterate here the various paths that Jobs followed that would brighten the lives of millions of humans. Instead, let us reflect upon his own explanation of what drove him, and what we might do to find fulfillment in our own brief time on this earth:
Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.
Steve Jobs, June 12, 2005
Thank you Steve.

Cross-posted to The Renaissance Post

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Choosing Mediocrity and Greed

Choosing Mediocrity and Greed
Minnesota as a Microcosm of the Nation

Before Governor Dayton capitulated to demands the state continue to operate on a budget that excoriates the backs of lower income Minnesotans’ I wrote a commentary on the reasonableness of his proposals. They were based broadly on two assumptions most Americans have subscribed to forever.

First, there are functions government can provide better and more efficiently than the private sector and should provide through general taxation. Secondly, those who benefit the most from living in America should contribute more than those who benefit the least.

It turns out, because of the growth by topsy of our system of taxation; both the state and federal tax systems are regressive with the exception of the income tax. Income tax is the only tax opponents of increasing taxes point at. They never say income in front of tax.

Minnesotans in the top 1% of incomes pays less as a per cent of their income in state and local taxes than the bottom 99% of us.

Opponents of increasing taxes on the very highest income brackets point out taxpayers in the top 10% pay 56% of income tax. This is true according to the Minnesota Revenue Department’s Tax increment study (MDTI) of 2011. In the same paragraph they note the same taxpayers bore 38.5% of the total tax burden having 42% of a total income. The bottom 10% paid no income tax but they paid 2.4% of the total tax burden but received less than 0.9% of the total income.

Tax rates by deciles from the MDTI shows the rate of all taxes on Minnesotans (state and local) is the lowest for the highest incomes at 9.7%.

How the Democrats and Dayton could not get this into the media is beyond me. The scoring of his proposals after watering down his original proposals showed that 90% of his increase would be paid by the top 5% and fully 80% by the top 1% of incomes.

This would hardly be confiscatory on those poor million/billionaires. The MDTI shows this would be an increase of 1.77% on their total tax rate. Since state and property tax is deductible on federal taxes this would lower the effect on their state tax rate to a 1.22% increase. The federal government would pay for about 30% of the increase coming to Minnesota.

Instead of solving the budget problems the legislature pulled a Pawlenty. A name that should become an adjective describing kicking the fiscal can down the road by delaying payments, borrowing from future revenue, and defunding social safety nets for the politically and financially impoverished.
This is what the legislature did. Politicians will surely write in and try to confuse you about this. I invite you to explore the Minnesota Revenue web site yourself.

Minnesota is a microcosm of the nation and its fiscal madness. Both are saying, in effect, we cannot afford to join all other advanced nations in providing the same safety nets and services other nations do. They have convinced enough people that undeserving, slothful, and devious people are “milking the government cow from 300 million teats”. They still believe the fabrication of the welfare queen driving up in her Cadillac to get her welfare check that was disproved thirty years ago.

I have not found an IRS document like the Tax Incidence Studies. I did find a publication on the top 400 incomes reported for 2008. The top 400 reported had an average income of 270 million dollars. Approximately one third had an average federal income tax rate of less than 15%. Only 15% of such returns had an average between 30 and 35%. Less than 4 out of 5 returns for the fabulous 400 reported wage or salary income. They had income only from rent, dividends, interest, capital gains, and the like. All these are subject to preferential tax treatments. It also indicates these 88 of these folks do not contribute anything to social security.

The average tax on $270 was 49 million for an average tax rate of 18.11%. When you hear politicians say you can’t overtax “job creators” and throw 35% figure at you it might be interesting to ask them if they know the average rate billionaires pay in income tax. Their response will be the rich invest their money and create jobs. The rich invest their money in relatively mature and large business and industry. That is impossible to do and keep your investment in the U.S. Both General Motors and Ford are making most of the cars in other countries. Chrysler is owned by an Italian company. IBM, General Electric, you name a titan of Wall Street and they are global. Much of the uber rich create jobs in other countries.

F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “The rich are different from you and me.” I would rather dwell on a quote from Warren Buffet one of the richest men in the country. “There is something wrong with a system where I pay less of my income in taxes than my secretary”.

In a kinder and gentler time conservatives like Theodore Roosevelt knew it was not good to charge those riding in first class on the ship of state the same as those in steerage. Ronald Reagan recognized the need for a progressive tax and after his 1982 tax cut raised taxes 11 times. Reagan’s tax increases in 1983 were called the largest peace time tax increases in American history.

In a kinder and gentler time the public made a decision to protect our disadvantaged, handicapped, and disabled. We decided to honor our elderly, protect them from poverty, and provide dignity for them in their dotage. We are not broke. We can afford it. We choose not to. We choose to go back to 30% poverty for those over 65. We choose to go back to the poor farms. We choose Hoovervilles. We choose Grandma and Grandpa living with their children for the last decades of their lives.

I don’t remember the Hoovervilles but I do all the rest and I don’t choose it.

Friday, September 9, 2011


Pew Research published a new poll about the public's view of problems facing the nation September 8th. The heading on their e-mail alert stated now more people view jobs and the economy more important than the nation's debt.

In the article there is a graph that shows the levels of concern for jobs, the budget deficit, inflation, financial and housing markets since March 2010. Jobs has always, since March 2010, been the area of most concern. Only in March, 2011 was inflation within 6% of jobs and the budget deficit has never been less than 10% below jobs in the publics concern.

Not only were the Republicans able to ignore the public's concerns. They were able to distract (along with Obama and the Congressional Democrats) the majority of the media with their constant message of deficits and the extortion of the debt limit raise.

Until Obama learns how to avoid falling into letting Republicans control the subject we will all go through this over and over again.
Medicare Did It Right, Again

For those who believe Government cannot do anything right I offer this example of a Government program that has done quite a few things right. The agency is the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). Boy that will explode a few right wing heads.

Six years ago the FDA approved, in an expedited process, stent devices similar to the stents used to open heart arteries that are plugged up with cholesterol plaques for use in preventing strokes and more specifically recurrent strokes. It seems intuitive that if it helps in heart disease and the problems in stroke are very similar it should help in stroke as well. It just isn’t that simple.

CMS knew it was not that simple. Since most strokes caused by cholesterol plaques occur in older patients Medicare was likely to be responsible for much of the cost of the new therapy. Standard medical therapy consists of strict control of blood pressure, strict control of diabetes, control of cholesterol/lipid levels, drugs to reduce the ability of blood to clot, cessation of smoking and life style changes.

CMS refused to pay for the stent treatment unless it was done for a controlled study to prove the stents would be effective. So a study was devised where matched patient populations were all given the intensive medical management and half were also given the stent after appropriate disclosure that it was a new procedure study. Adding the approved stent (Wingspan stent) would add $88,000 to the $24,000 cost of the intensive medical management.

The study found the stent produced no long term benefits and was statistically similar to the medically treated group after the immediate post operative period. The stent, however, was associated with a large increase in death and recurrent stroke in the immediate post operative period.

It is possible that further studies will find a niche for the stent in a rigorously selected group of patients. Stents for atherosclerotic heart disease went through a period of reappraisal. It is still the object of some skepticism and will undoubtedly continue to be studied and its indications for use will be refined.

Still, the indiscriminate use and the additional $88,000 cost will not be a factor in Medicare inflation. CMS did the taxpayers a great favor. Not only in protecting the Medicare funds from more rapid depletion but in influencing the private insurance industries costs. When Medicare makes this kind of move the private insurers almost always follow quickly. Medicare gives them cover for excluding this kind of unproven therapy from coverage.

Think of the vast number procedures and treatments that are no more than intuitively performed in this country that should be examined critically. That is the purpose of the section of the Affordable Care Act concerned with comparative effectiveness. You know, the part that Republicans demagogue as the rationing of care.

Ref. Stenting versus Aggressive Medical Therapy for Intracranial Arterial Stenosis:
Brain Stents do more Harm than Good, Rob Stein

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Government should stop licensing marriage

Government - Federal,State and Local should get out of the
Marriage Business

My wife and I recently had a conversation about the coming constitutional amendment vote here in Minnesota to declare marriage as the union of only a male and a female. This is being proposed after the Republican dominated House and Senate of the state passed a bill that cannot, by our constitution, be vetoed by the Governor. The arguments for this include the threat such unions pose to traditional marriages and the admonitions in the bible against such unions. Homophobia is alive and well in Minnesota.

The bible argument is a bit strange. There are, to my understanding, biblical admonitions against bestiality. Definite proscriptions against same sex unions, I believe, are based on loose interpretations of allegory from the old Testament and St Paul in the New. Many interpretations of any part of the bible have confounded scholars (especially skeptics) for centuries and, I suppose, still do. Even if you are so faith endowed you believe in the inerrancy of the bible you should agree there are many ways to interpret much of the bible.

My biggest problem, however, with the biblical argument is there are many people, even here in Minnesota, for which the bible is not their religious touchstone. Besides devotees of Dawkins, Harris, and Sagan Minnesota has the largest population of Somalis in the country and the second largest (to California) of Mung for whom the bible is of little import. There is a Buddhist Temple in Minneapolis. The Wiccans are a secretive lot and I’m not sure of their numbers. The reader can name many more religions I’m sure.

Man and woman unions had the added salutary effect, as far as the churches and synagogues were concerned, of producing offspring to fill up the pews and church coffers. Kings, satraps, and head men every where were given more fodder for their armies as well. Besides it is good for control of the masses if they accept control in the intimate matter of long term relationships they will accept control in many other areas as well.

There have been threats to my marriage but never have I considered the cohabitation of members of the same sex a threat. We had a gay couple live directly across the street from us in St Louis and they were wonderful neighbors. Quiet, industrious, and kept their property in great repair and the landscaping was outstanding. They were friendly, polite, thoughtful and circumspect. I have gay relatives who have not come out and so they are circumspect about their preferences. My wife had/has many gay friends because of the fine arts degree she returned to college for. None of these associations ever caused the problems between us that raising four kids did.

This is not just a rant without a proposed solution. I look at marriage as a religious construct. It was probably proposed centuries ago by the same kind of priests Jesus threw out of the temple in the oft repeated story in the bible. The motive was not to limit the number of wives and maybe the untold part of the story was it was not even to limit who married who. Remember Solomon and his finagling and multiple wives. David and even Moses had multiple wives. A practice we now abhor and have done away with. We can do the same for people who through no fault of their own have a same sex orientation.

The major biblical admonition most often quoted against same sex union is by St. Paul an author that can, without stretching the imagination, be considered probably schizophrenic. The bolt of lightning that knocked him off his horse had the effect of causing him to hear voices longer than a simple concussion should. In any case the churches seemed to have latched onto this rite in all cultures and most religions. There were other benefits besides the initial monetary one. The money coming into the church just for the ceremony was probably enough.

Man/woman marriage also had the salutary effect of producing offspring that populated the pews of the churches and the armies of the kings.

When civil government decided to get into the marriage business is difficult to determine. It varies from country to country but started somewhere in the middle ages. Certainly it started much later than the religious certification of marriage.

Libertarians do not believe the state/government has any business in the marriage of a man and a woman. A libertarian view on same sex marriage is more difficult and I suspect more varied. Be that as it may, my view is the state has no business in the marriage controversy at all. This may be the only situation where I am in at least partial agreement with Libertarians.

The state/government based its involvement on controlling sexually transmitted diseases, eugenics, to protect the citizen from illegal/improper marriage, and to keep accurate records. It was also used to prevent whites from marrying blacks, mulattos, Orientals, Indians and others in many states in the United States. The arguments now are effectively reduced to the biblical admonitions and the accurate records for issuing a license at all.

My opinion on this divisive and contrived political controversy is all government entities should stop issuing licenses to anyone. Religious sects should be free to marry whom ever they feel comfortably fits within their religious convictions. Gays, lesbians, and transgenders do fit into some orthodox religions it seems. If there are none local to all these groups they can form a congregation of their own if they wish.

The state can require couples to come forward after exchanging vows and register civilly as is done in some European countries. The couples signatures and social security numbers should identify the individuals for purposes of the state and federal governments. Surely this information can be transmitted securely to the IRS, Social Security, state and all other agencies that would require this to afford them the legal status of marriage without calling it anything except registering. The couple can call it marriage, bonding, union, partnering or anything else they want to.

This should protect divorce lawyers that will then be called to divvy up assets if the couples decide to part and decide if one should contribute the others cost of living. It should allow the couples to visit each other in the intensive care unit and make decisions about resuscitation. It should allow the remaining partner to collect the deceased partner’s estate, pension, and social security if appropriate. It should allow the couple to file joint tax returns no matter the construct of the union. There is nothing in the word marriage that is magical.

Those who want a big $25,000 church wedding and an even more expensive divorce can continue to do just that.

I want no part of peeking into anyone’s private life and I don’t think the government representing me should either.

Friday, July 8, 2011

The "No New Taxes" Fantasy

There is no free lunch. We pay our taxes to support security for all of our citizens, wealthy and otherwise. Plug the tax loopholes, kill the subsidies going to fossil fuel providers, and step up to the cash register to pay legitimate bills for maintaining the infrastructure that supports an egalitarian way of life.

Social Security is a huge pool of money, but it exists because we pay for it during our working lives. This is not a tax designed to meet the day-to-day expenses of governance, it's a savings account administered as a trust fund so that those of us who are fortunate enough to live to see retirement can be sure of having some of that retirement supported by what we have saved.

Large pools of money draw politicians like maggots to rotting meat. Tell your representative and senator to keep their mouth hooks off the Social Security landscape. "No New Taxes" in Minnesota has already put us $6 billion in the red. Let's start paying it off, but not so fast that our bridges collapse in the "rush hour" traffic.

Let's look briefly at the current "rush" to reduce the deficit at both the state and federal levels. We're told that our current debt is unsustainable, that soon, we will be spending our entire budget just to service (pay interest on money already borrowed) our debt.  Too bad, but that's the way credit systems work. Whether it's your mortgage, credit cards, or your line of credit, once you incur the debt, you must pay the lender. This is both a legal obligation and a moral responsibility. So, paying the debt does not involve "new taxes" at all, it simply requires us to do what we said we would do when we borrowed the money.

The obligation we're talking about is an old one, stretching back years, or decades, spanning times when the economy was good. Now that it is not so good, can we simply declare bankruptcy and stop paying the bills? Yes, at the individual and corporate level, but at the cost of a poor credit rating in the future, impoverishment of our moral standing in the community, or the demise of a once-profitable business. No, at the democratic government level. We incur debt at this level because of perceived legitimate needs at the time the debt was incurred. Maybe the cause was to fight global totalitarianism, maybe to clean up the aftermath of the "perfect storm", maybe to build national networks of rail, road, electrical or communications grids.

Whatever the need, it was judged sufficient at the time to justify incurring the debt. Now we must pay the piper, even if our individual contributions (taxes) have to be somewhat larger than we had earlier anticipated.  The popular slogan, "no new taxes", deceives us into thinking that we are going to be spending money we don't have on "new" programs. Nothing could be further from the truth.  Current budgets at the state and federal levels address continuing needs that have, in many cases, not been fully funded at the outset. Some of these programs need to be phased out in an orderly manner if they are no longer in the best interests of the citizenry, but this can be done carefully, with aforethought, so that the providers of these services can retrain and relocate without creating a major economic upheaval at home or abroad.

In future essays here, we will explore how population changes, opportunity costs, and undue reliance upon the science fiction of Ayn Rand have resulted in the current crises of government spending. For now, it will suffice to simply do as we have always intended in the past, that is, pay our bills, even if the rates on existing tax bases have to go up.